By Phillip Wayne Tomlin
[Editor’s note: Phillip Wayne Tomlin is currently incarcerated at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama. Mr. Tomlin spent 27 years on Alabama’s death row. Since then, he is serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.]
Why the death penalty?
I’ve asked myself this question so many times in the 44 years I have been incarcerated. What purpose does the death penalty serve, other than revenge and personal gain?
Of course, hatred from the victims’ families often comes into play, but it is encouraged by the government. Their job should be to get the victims’ families the help they need to get through the horrible ordeal. But instead, they fuel their anger and hurt.
Politics also play a significant role, of course. Lots of politicians, even judges, use the death penalty to get extra votes, to get elected, or re-elected. And once it has served their purpose, you rarely hear from them again—till the next time they need it.
Slowly, Americans are waking up to the abuses. It’s undisputed that overzealous prosecutors convict and sentence to death innocent people. The agony for the mothers and children of the executed is unbearable. It costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Over half the US population is now against the death penalty.
So why, why on earth does the United States, the most “civilized” country in the world, still have the death penalty? So many other countries have abolished the death penalty, and they seem to be doing fine.
From my personal experience, I was convicted of an automatic death sentence at my first trial on March 25, 1978. It was my birthday. At a couple more retrials, I was convicted or sentenced to death, again on my birthday. The prosecutor and judge thought that amusing, I’m sure. I had 4 trials (3 retrials) and a resentencing hearing where I was sentenced to death. I had 3 judicial overrides from 12-0 jury verdicts of life imprisonment without parole to death. It was hell on my daughter, Joy, and my son. And all without an aggravating circumstance to charge a capital offense under the Ala. Code.
Each reversal, the appeals courts said I didn’t have an aggravating circumstance to be put to death. The prosecutors and trial judges made up several aggravating circumstances only to be struck down. The Alabama Supreme Court in 2004 finally ordered to just resentence me to life without parole, without really any authority to do that. They were just tired of my case. They should have said decades earlier it was felony murder, straight murder, not capital. In 1999, after my last retrial, the legislature added the aggravated circumstance needed to charge and convicted me of an offense that reach life without parole. It was the same as my original charge. They knew it was bad law, but I’m still stuck serving LWOP.
Some people might ask me if I’m bitter. Yes, somewhat. Charge and convict me of what I’m guilty of, not what the prosecutor wanted. But it’s too late now. And the state and federal courts do not give you much scrutiny if you have a sentence of life without parole.
The death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972 and revived by the politicians and prosecutors in 1976. That was a mistake. It’s an archaic relic of our own tortured past and should be abolished.
May God have mercy on our souls. Only God will be able to wash all the blood from our hands.
— Phillip Tomlin, January 2, 2021